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Highlights of the Japanese Grand Prix

Posted on 10 October 2016

All over at the start (or was it?)

Not typically a man to crumble under pressure, when Lewis Hamilton botched his start at Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix, dropping from the front row to eighth place before the end of the first lap, it looked as though the Mercedes driver were waving goodbye to his championship chances.

Instead, Hamilton showed the determination that has characterised his career, driving with controlled hunger to recover what had at one point been a 19.6s deficit to race leader Nico Rosberg, securing his 100th podium finish in Formula One only 0.7s behind the second-placed car of Max Verstappen.

While the race win was out of reach within seconds of the start lights going out, Hamilton livened up the closing stages of the race with a hard-fought battle with the Red Bull ahead, the gap between himself and Verstappen waxing and waning but never drifting far from the 0.7s that separated the pair as they crossed the finish line.

In order to make it work the Briton ran slightly longer than the frontrunners during his first stint, inheriting some positions while others pitted and passing others on track. But the real success came in Hamilton’s second stint, on new hard tyres, which saw him passing Daniel Ricciardo, Felipe Massa, and Valtteri Bottas in quick succession and then powering on to lap the Suzuka Circuit around 0.5s a lap faster than Rosberg, chipping away at the gap to the front.

When Rosberg made his second stop at the end of lap 29, he emerged behind his teammate. Three laps later, Hamilton made his second stop, returning to the track in third place with a 16-second gap to the front. While that gap never closed entirely, by lap 47 it had shrunk to 4.8s, and that podium finish was enough to keep Hamilton’s title hopes alive for at least another weekend.

Palmer’s gift to Lewis

Jolyon Palmer had an unwitting impact on Lewis Hamilton’s championship chances on Sunday afternoon in Suzuka, something the Renault F1 driver would hardly have thought possible at the beginning of the Japanese Grand Prix.

After Hamilton fluffed his start, and was running in the mid-field, those who had managed to take advantage of his early error began to pit around laps 12 and 13. The early strategic stops from both Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen saw both men return to the track behind Palmer, and while the British rookie did not prove impossible to pass, neither the Red Bull nor the Ferrari were able to make short work of the task.

A solid defensive performance from the young racer slowed down both Raikkonen and Ricciardo enough that when Hamilton made his first stop the Mercedes driver exited the pits with Ricciardo slightly ahead on track and Raikkonen - who was in the middle of a pit-straight battle with the Force India of Sergio Perez - just behind.

With the Ferrari visible only in his wing mirrors, Hamilton was able to make the most of his fresh rubber to swiftly pass Ricciardo’s Red Bull, leaving the Australian racer little more than a distant memory for the duration of the race. Palmer himself crossed the line in 12th place, unaware of the unwitting impact his first stint had had on his countryman’s championship chances.

Singing the blue-flag blues

The air around Suzuka Circuit was blue for much of Sunday afternoon, not with language but with waved flags for backmarkers and the resounding radio complaints from those drivers - primarily Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen - who felt that passing lapped cars unwilling to properly move off line was having a negative impact on their race.

While it was clear from the accordioning of the gaps on the timesheets that the frontrunners were not having an easy day of it in traffic, Vettel’s blue-flag whingeing - which began on lap 30, not long past the halfway mark of the Japanese Grand Prix, and continued to the chequered flag - bordered on the excessive. No penalties were issued by the stewards for ignoring waved blues, which in itself is telling.

“I lost three or four seconds with Lewis just across the blue flags,” Vettel told reporters in the post-race TV pen. “I had them sitting in front of me in the sections with a lot of corners. Some of it, sure, was subjective, you don’t really see the full picture and other people lose time as well. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win in these situations and I think today we weren’t the luckiest ones. But in the end it didn’t really matter.”

Verstappen was another man to complain on the radio of backmarkers ignoring waved blues, but again the stewards saw no reason to punish any driver for the alleged infraction. While the loss of some time is inevitable, it was interesting to note that on more than one occasion the second-placed finisher followed the backmarker he was chasing off the racing line.

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